The air-conditioning is struggling against the summer heat. Residents in the hallway talk of broken lightbulbs and appliances. There are enough clipboard-wielding contractors and inspectors milling around to stage a Broadway production of "Rent."
It's just a typical day at Patten Towers -- the troubled Section 8 landmark now recovering from decades of neglect under a succession of absentee landlords and government officials who did little to revitalize the downtown high-rise.
Years of inspections by federal, state and local officials failed to note health and safety violations ranging from unsanctioned fire equipment to boilers that were installed in the basement with no record of a permit.
On May 28, an electrical fire whose origins still are unknown ravaged the basement's antiquated wiring. Residents were forced into emergency shelters and extended-stay hotels for the month of June while owners repaired the former hotel.
Those repairs so far have passed muster with the code inspectors and the fire department. But they aren't enough for Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, who has told lieutenants that the building's residents -- many of whom suffer from physical and mental infirmities -- deserve a better life.
Berke is reportedly pleased that the dirt and rodent feces were removed from the Patten Towers' air ducts, that the building's structural integrity wasn't compromised by the 1,600-degree blaze, and that the emergency exit lights are fixed and working again.
But the mayor wants California real estate magnate Greg Perlman, who owns and manages Patten Towers through various entities, to do a lot more.
"The residents of Patten Towers must have a better living situation," a Berke spokeswoman wrote in an emailed statement. The mayor was not available for comment Wednesday.
"That means living without the constant disruption of fire and police calls. It also means having access to resources that address their social service needs, and living in units that are maintained at an acceptable standard," according to the statement.
That exact standard is still being worked out, even as life returns to something resembling normal for Patten Towers' 241 residents.
Representatives for PK Management also did not respond to requests for comment.
But a plan submitted to the mayor's office by PK Management, which is owned by Perlman, pledges to go above and beyond the fixes required by basic building codes. The company says it will build a wellness center, upgrade smoke detectors, begin housekeeping inspections and hire a new service coordinator. The management group will "explore partnerships" to bring computer classes, laughter therapy, spiritual journaling, glucose testing and sobriety support to Patten Towers, according to the revitalization plan.
Quarterly focus groups will allow residents to voice their wants and needs, and help "get residents to take ownership and increased pride in the building and its programs," PK Management officials promised. New thermal fire detectors and resident counseling could reduce the near-daily trips to the tower by six companies of Chattanooga firefighters, and evacuation drills will stave off the midnight chaos that ensued in May when firefighters had to carry some residents down nearly a dozen flights of stairs, according to the plan.
Improvements to individual rooms would raise the standard of living for Chattanooga's poorest citizens, and regular safety inspections will sniff out fire hazards.
But it could be months before those improvements are complete. PK Management plans to fix the lingering building code violations by September, but the quality-of life upgrades could take longer and may be difficult for officials to verify.
Money, however, can be a powerful motivator.
PK Management receives about $230,000 per month in rent -- $150,000 from federal taxpayers and $80,000 from the 241 residents, according to figures provided by the Tennessee Housing Development Agency.
But Perlman only receives that amount when the building is occupied, meaning that he lost almost a quarter of a million dollars during the month the building was empty. The company has not disclosed the cost of those hotels stays and repairs.
If PK Management doesn't keep things tidy, the California millionaire could find himself hemorrhaging money again.
"I have and will continue to do everything in my power to hold PK Management accountable," Berke said through a spokesperson. "I will be watching and expecting results."
Initial signs show that PK Management is working to comply with the rules.
THDA spokeswoman Patricia Smith said the agency had received required documents from the company ahead of a July 3 deadline, and a state inspection is scheduled for July 12.
At the city level, building official Dallas Rucker will supervise ongoing repairs on the mayor's behalf, at least until the fall. So far, it's been a full-time job, Rucker said.
"I've had an electrical inspector in there every day for the past three weeks," Rucker said. "Anytime they ask for a conference or for us to come over and look at something else they've done, we go over, because we're committed to that site going back up quickly, but with safety in mind."
As he spoke, electrical contractors were still parked around the building, as they have been for the past five weeks.
"You'll see people in and out of that building until the end of September," he said. "We've agreed as long as they make diligent effort, we'll work with them any way they can."
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at email@example.com or 423-757-6315.
Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...
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